NEW YORK — After a poor-shooting, lackluster first half, the New York Knicks needed some inspiration to continue their long winning streak. A halftime ceremony honoring the second and last Knicks team to win an NBA title, four decades ago, seemed to do the trick.
Behind an unstoppable 29-point second half from star forward Carmelo Anthony, the current Knicks (49-26) erased a nine-point deficit with a 42-point third quarter explosion before coasting to a 101-83 win over the Milwaukee Bucks (36-39) in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.
“We were playing horribly in the first half,” admitted Anthony. “We came in at halftime, [and] guys got into it.”
As proof of that, injured veteran reserve forward Rasheed Wallace, a vocal leader and motivator who has been injured for most of the season after playing well early in the year, was yelling in the locker room and refocusing his team at that point, according to Anthony.
“Guys got amped up for the second half,” Anthony added. “We came out in the third quarter blazing and [never] looked back.”
While New York doesn’t have an official team holiday, several interesting parallels and coincidences permeated a day that could have fittingly been celebrated as the first ever Knicks Day:
• The Knicks’ victory was their season-high 11th straight, matching the longest such streak achieved by the NBA champion 1972-73 Knicks.
• The win occurred exactly 66 years after the New York’s first home playoff win, over the Cleveland Rebels, on April 5, 1947.
• Anthony’s game-high 41 points came after he posted successive 50 (tying a career high) and 40-point efforts (in Miami and Atlanta, respectively) to tie him with his childhood hero and former Knicks star Bernard King, for the franchise record for consecutive 40-point games.
• Earlier in the day, reports circulated that King would finally equal the status of several different players on the 1972-73 Knicks by officially becoming a member of the basketball Hall of Fame on Monday, after being nominated for a sixth consecutive year.
Anthony was unaware of the news on King until I broke it to him amidst a swarm of other reporters, in front of his locker, after the game. “He made it?” a surprised Anthony asked me, before saying, “He deserved to be in a long time ago.”
On his 40-point game streak, Anthony told me, “I didn’t know anything about the record until today,” while adding, “It is great to be mentioned in the same breath as [King]. It is a big honor.”
However, the special night would have been tarnished had New York’s win streak ended on what the Knicks were billing as Legends Night, with their old league champions in the house.
“We didn’t want to end the streak, not tonight,” Anthony said, noting the festivities surrounding the evening.
At the outset however, it looked as though that type of deflation could take place, as New York missed all but one of its dozen first-half three-point attempts while Milwaukee overcame an 8-2 deficit, pulled even, at 19-19, after the first quarter, and twice opened up leads of as much as 10 points late in the first half.
The Bucks settled for a 45-36 halftime lead after reserve guard J.J. Redick made 4 of 5 three-pointers and scored 13 of his 18 points in the second quarter, while guard Brandon Jennings added seven of his team-high 25 points in the period.
But, after scoring 12 first-half points, Anthony made his next seven shots and scored 18 third-quarter points to nearly singlehandedly match Milwaukee’s 21 points in the frame.
“Right now, I am in one of those zones,” said Anthony, who has shot an incredibly efficient and consistent 18-for-26, 17-for-27 and 17-for-28 over his past three games.
Meanwhile, reserve guard J.R. Smith, the NBA’s leading scorer off the bench and last week’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week, scored 12 of his 30 points and points as guard Raymond Felton netted all nine of his points in the quarter.
“I haven’t seen him play like that, [and] I have been with him in a long time.” Anthony said of Smith, his former teammate in Denver for five years before the two were reunited with New York last year.
Although he’s a superstar chasing the league scoring title himself, a humble Anthony said of Smith, a leading Sixth Man of The Year candidate, “The way he is putting us over the top, I am trying to piggy back off of him. He is making the right plays when he comes in and it helps everyone… we will always have a friendship. I have been with him since he was 18 or 19 [years old]. I have seen him grow and… right now, he is playing the best he has since he has been in the NBA, and it says a lot about him.”
Showing how they are different from their championship predecessors who played before the NBA adopted the three-point-line, the sometimes Jekyll-and-Hyde Knicks, who often live or die by the three-point shot, quickly turned around their miserable perimeter shooting from the first-half, making 8 of 13 shots from behind the arc in the third quarter.
The drastic outside shooting improvement helped New York go on a game-turning 25-2 surge that eradicated a 57-48 deficit in favor of a 73-59 lead in less than six minutes.
Milwaukee cut that margin to nine points, but reserve point guard Jason Kidd (five points, seven rebounds) grabbed a missed three-pointer with just 1.5 seconds left in the period, and after crossing the three-point arc in the back court, banked in a 59-foot three-pointer at the buzzer, to give the Knicks a 78-66 edge heading into the final quarter.
That lead was cut in half over the next 8½ minutes, after a Reddick three-pointer capped a 15-9 run that moved the Bucks to within 87-81. But, Anthony scored the next nine points while making four straight jumpers, to swell New York’s lead to 96-81 with 1:34 remaining, as the Knicks closed the game on a 14-2 spurt over the final 4:38.
To their credit, it wasn’t just that Anthony and Smith collectively took 56 percent (50 of 89) of their team’s shots while scoring 70 percent of New York’s points. They also grabbed nearly half of the Knicks’ rebounds, with Smith hauling in 10 and Anthony pulling down a game-high and personal season-best 14 boards.
“He is trying to do a little bit of everything,” said head coach Mike Woodson on Anthony. “That is what the great ones do. They figure out a way to beat you… he is special, that is all I can say.”
Yet, Woodson was even more enamored with the 1972-73 Knick greats with whom he spent plenty of time during the week.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Woodson, a former college star at Indiana and a 1980 first-round draft pick of the Knicks. “I was getting autographs,” said Woodson, smiling. “Those guys have set the foundation of where we stand today as Knicks coaches and players.”
Center Tyson Chandler, who has already earned one championship ring (with Kidd, in Dallas) as he seeks another, added his own thoughts on the Knicks champions of 40 years ago.
“We’ve got to get into the brotherhood,” he said. “They have a brotherhood, and you can see it. We just want to follow in their footsteps.”
That mindset that is a lot more realistic now than it was before New York’s win streak began.
Prior to that, the Knicks had lost 11 of 18 games, capped by a season high-tying four-game losing streak out West, during which Chandler and Anthony each missed significant time to knee injuries.
Before flying back to New York to have his knee drained and then back to Los Angeles to rejoin his team solely for moral support, Anthony was initially reluctant to try anything other than letting his knee naturally drain and heal on its own.
Now though, he admits, “I always take [my recent success] back to [getting] my knee [taken care of]. I think that was the most important thing that happened to me at that time… I give a lot of credit to getting that procedure [done].”
New York’s current winning streak is surpassed in team history only by the 1993-94 squad that won 15 straight games en route to the Knicks’ last division title.
With a division magic number of just two, the Knicks, who swept a season series (going 4-0) over the Bucks for the first time in 13 seasons, can finally win another division crown and put an end to the Boston Celtics’ five-year reign as Atlantic Division champions.
Trying to inch closer to that goal while seeking their first 50-win season in 13 years, the Knicks travel to face the Oklahoma City Thunder (56-20), last year’s NBA Finals runner-up, in a nationally televised matchup on Sunday afternoon.
Through Friday, Oklahoma City was tied with San Antonio for the best record in the Western Conference, led by star forward Kevin Durant, who will enter the game with a league-leading 28.4 points per contest, just barely ahead of Anthony’s 28.3-point average.
First for Anthony though, is watching the Final Four on Saturday night, as Syracuse looks to get past Michigan and reach its first national championship game since Anthony led the school to a national title as a freshman (during his only year in college) in 2003.
As if anyone even had to ask, Anthony of course, is going with his alma mater, but not by much.
“Syracuse by four,” he told me.
NOTES: Although he made the Hall of Fame for what he accomplished as a coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, rather than for what he did as a Knicks player, Phil Jackson received the second-loudest cheers among the Knicks legends, as those were outdone only by the ovation given to Knicks legend and current longtime Knicks broadcaster Walt Frazier… the remaining applause was somewhat disappointingly reserved for Knicks heroes Earl Monroe (who addressed the crowd after all of the legends were introduced), Willis Reed, Dick Barnett, Bill Bradley, Dean Meminger, Henry Bibby, Jerry Lucas, Hawthorne Wingo, John Gianelli, and the late Dave DeBusschere, Red Holtzman and Dick McGuire.